However we might feel about the merits of Proportional Representation (PR), or electoral alliances, the likelihood – indeed certainty – is that we think that non-voting is a bad thing. The right to vote has been hard won, after all. Think of the Chartists and the Suffragettes. Surely we should exercise this right? And voting has never been easier, thanks to the introduction of ‘on-demand’ postal voting in 2000.
The depressing fact, however, is that non-voting is a problem that is getting worse in terms of historic trends. What’s more, in recent decades, the related problem of non-registration has assumed alarming proportions. In Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, turnout figures are calculated on the basis of those registered to vote. Growing numbers of eligible voters are failing to equip themselves with the ability to vote by registering with local authorities.
Let’s turn first to the facts and to general elections. Briefly, under conditions of universal suffrage (introduced in 1928), up to and including the general election of 1997, turnouts in Britain never dropped below 70% (measured as a national average). They often considerably exceeded this: in the elections of 1950 and 1951, turnouts of over 80% were recorded. In 1992, which saw John Major’s Conservatives elected with a thin majority, turnout was 78%. New Labour’s landslide victory of 1997 was secured under a turnout of 72%. Then things changed: in 2001, turnout plummeted to a miserable 59%, the first time in much more than a century turnout had dipped below 60%. They improved thereafter – most recently, to 66% in 2015, 69% in 2017, and 67% in 2019 – but we have still to break the 70% barrier.
By contrast, there has never been anything like a ‘golden age’ of turnout for local elections. In the inter-war period, council elections in major towns and cities struggled to attract turnouts of over 50%. County council elections seem to have aroused even less interest. Since then turnouts for local elections have gradually declined further, from a national average of roughly 47% during the 1940s to roughly 38% in the early 2000s. The local elections of 2018 secured a national average turnout of 35%.
But as mentioned above, a further – and growing – problem is non-registration and the incompleteness of electoral registers. The best and most recent estimates point to a definite process of long-term decline: whereas registers were as much as 95% complete in the 1950s and 1960s, by 2000 this had slipped to roughly 91–92%; and they have slipped even further since, and by some margin it seems. In 2019, the Electoral Commission estimated that (in 2018) the registers were only 83–85% complete, meaning that roughly 9 million eligible voters were not registered. Given that the non-registered do not feature in turnout statistics, the problem of non-voting is actually much worse than the figures quoted above suggest. For the 2019 general election, for instance, what we might call the true turnout figure, incorporating both those registered to vote and those not registered (but nonetheless eligible to vote), would be much closer to 55–57%.
So what should be done? The most radical solution is to introduce compulsory voting. There has in fact been growing interest in compulsory voting since the late 1990s, including agitation by MPs in the form of parliamentary questions, legislative amendments, and backbench-sponsored bills. Most notably, in 2015 a ten-minute rule bill (‘Voting (Civic Obligation) Bill’) was put forward by the Labour MP, David Winnick, advocating compulsion.
At the core of the case for compulsion is the contention that voting is fundamentally a civic duty, rather than a right, and as such can be compelled, as with other civic duties (e.g. paying taxes and sending your kids to school). Another key argument is that higher turnouts make for a more accurate, and ultimately useful, reflection of public opinion. We can only truly know ‘the will of the people’ when everyone, or close to everyone, votes.
It is worth dwelling on the arguments against, since they help to explain both why compulsion is only a minority demand and why, as a nation, we tolerate non-voting, even though no one considers it a good thing per se.
- The first of three closely related objections is that voting is fundamentally a right rather than duty, and a right that should be enacted voluntarily. It is valuable only insofar as one has the right not to vote.
- The second turns on the idea of ‘choice’. Voting is about exercising choice. If a voter is not presented with a candidate that aligns with his or her outlook, then the voter should also have the choice not to vote.
- The third follows: compelling a voter to choose a candidate, even though none of them express his or her views, will in fact result in a distortion of the representative process – a broken rather than a truly reflective mirror.
Ultimately, the question of compulsion is something of a distraction: it remains – and is likely to remain – only a minority demand and the arguments against are just as compelling as those for. But there is much else that might be done, building on the widely shared sense that it would be better if more people voted than currently do.
Automatic voter registration
The first aspect of the problem we might deal with is the one that is most obviously an affront to our democratic integrity: the growing problem non-registration. Even if we feel that non-voting should be tolerated for the reasons given above, the simple fact that millions are currently unable to vote because they are not registered to do so is clearly problematic. There are various solutions here, besides equipping our local authorities with more resources to enforce what, in theory, is supposed to be an obligation imposed on the eligible (you can in fact be fined up to £1,000 for not registering to vote). The most elegant is automatic voter registration, which has been championed in recent years by various groups – among them the Electoral Reform Society – and which is practised in many other European countries and beyond (e.g. Israel, Chile). This might be implemented in a number of ways, drawing on different data sets, but in essence it entails the direct enrolment of citizens onto the electoral register by public officials, without the need for pro-active efforts by citizens. Another method – a sort of halfway house between current practices and automatic registration – is assisted voter registration, whereby eligible voters are asked to register to vote when accessing other government services, for example when renewing a driving licence.
Enhancing registration rates, of course, is no guarantee of raising electoral participation, even if it provides the necessary administrative basis on which to do so. This is really the key problem: enhancing the turnout of those registered without clumsy and contentious resort to compulsion.
Cultural or institutional solutions?
Part of the problem here is agreeing what causes the problem in the first place. Is it social and cultural, or institutional – or simply administrative? The French, for instance, have, for a century and more, consistently turned out in higher numbers than Britons, and the best explanation for this is their more demanding, republican culture of citizenship, dating back to the French Revolution. But re-engineering a country’s civic culture is an immense task. We have, in any case, recently adopted some long-standing French policies, such as teaching citizenship in secondary schools, which has been compulsory since 2002.
Might the real problem be institutional, as in the design of our electoral systems? It is often claimed that introducing PR would enhance turnout, but once again this is far from straightforward. Comparable countries with majoritarian systems, such as the French Fifth Republic, with its two-round system, have consistently enjoyed much higher turnouts. Equally, and closer to home, turnouts in elections for the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, where they use a mixed system (part majoritarian, part proportional), have not been especially inspiring. In the Welsh case, turnout has never exceeded 50%. Turnouts in Scotland have been better and peaked at almost 64% in 2021; but this is the first time they have climbed above 60% since the first elections in 1999.
Could we, finally, make voting more convenient in terms of how votes are cast and administered? It is hard to see how voting in this country could be made any more convenient, now that we have ‘on-demand’ postal voting. Perhaps we might introduce on-line voting, but this comes with a barrage of obvious problems regarding the security of elections.
The truth is that fixing our non-voting problem admits of no easy solution. We need to work on multiple fronts and be prepared to do so for some time. But here are three modest reforms we might press for in the short-term, all relatively cheap and simple, in addition to the introduction of automatic (or, as a second best, assisted) voter registration:
- The adoption of a different and/or complementary measure of turnout. In the US, where the registration system differs from state to state, it has been customary to measure turnout as a percentage of the eligible population. We should adopt the same here, or, alternatively, provide two measures – one showing the percentage of registered voters that turnout, the other of all those eligible to vote – thereby highlighting the problem of non-registration.
- The enfranchisement of all 16- and 17-year-olds for all elections. The evidence shows that the younger you are, the less likely you are to vote. This measure is the best way of addressing this problem, allowing for the habit of voting to be forged at the earliest possible age. We also have British precedents in this case: Scotland and, most recently, Wales have enfranchised 16- and 17-year-olds for local and devolved elections.
- The introduction of a ‘None of the above’ category on the ballot paper, thus allowing people to register, actively and clearly, their refusal to endorse any of the candidates. At present, it is difficult to distinguish between those who stay at home because they have no interest at all in politics, and those who are interested and would like to vote but feel unable to do so because they feel none of the candidates represent their views. This would allow the latter group a quantifiable presence in elections and to be included in the turnout.
None of these measures, however, has the slightest chance of adoption in the absence of two vital ingredients. One of these is public interest and debate. Unlike in France, where recent dips in turnout for regional elections gave rise to national soul-searching, we just don’t seem especially bothered in this country – and this needs to change. We need to lavish the same attention on non-voting as we currently do on other questions of a constitutional and electoral sort, such as PR, regional devolution and the integrity of the union.
Second, we need political will on the part of our political parties and, above all, the government. But we know the present Tory government, despite trumpeting the ‘will of the people’ as it informed the (narrow) vote in favour of Brexit, has no desire whatsoever to engage with the problem. In fact, it intends only to make the problem worse by introducing, on altogether specious grounds, compulsory voter ID as part of its Elections Bill.
This, then, is the first step for all those concerned with the health of our democracy and the growing phenomena of non-voting and non-registration: to oppose the present Tory government and its Elections Bill.
Ed: Tom Crook is Reader in Modern British History at Oxford Brookes University. He has published a number of books on social history and is currently writing a history of political corruption in modern Britain.
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